Fifteen years ago Anthony Bourdain declared in his book Kitchen Confidential that when eating out, one should never order fish on a Monday. Why? Restaurants rarely get seafood deliveries over the weekend, and your fishy friend was likely bought in for the peak nights of Friday and Saturday. Thus, come Monday, the leftovers may not be quite as fresh as desired (and if that bothers you, don’t look up what he says about hollandaise sauce).
While in the intervening years, he appears to have mellowed on the fish front, reasoning that informed consumers and passionate chefs have upped the quality, there are still some secret restaurant rules worth following to ensure you make the most of your dining experience.
Here, industry insiders offer expert advice on everything from the best day to book, sneaky pricing traps and how to tell if the kitchen is clean. Bon appetit!
EAT OUT ON TUESDAYS
It may seem to make sense to organise a special dinner for a Friday or a Saturday, associating the weekend with kicking back. However Richard Kirkwood, head chef at Wright Brothers Spitalfields, tells Stylist that those in the know go for a midweek meal - especially if you're, ahem, entertaining.
"Tuesday nights are by far the best time to impress a date; the kitchen team have settled in to the weekly routine, and have just taken delivery of the freshest produce," he explains. "Traditionally restaurants are calm, with a more intimate, chilled out atmosphere on a Tuesday."
So ditch the weekend rush and start a Tuesday trend. On second thoughts, let's keep this to ourselves...
KEEP AN EYE ON THE SEASON
Chandos Elletson, founder of Restaurant magazine and creator of The Chef's Directory, tells Stylist we should also consider the seasons. "In the summer nature offers us foods high in water content: salads, asparagus, cucumber, courgettes, etc. In winter it's all about foods with energy. Think starchy root vegetables like potatoes, swedes and turnips.
"So we know if a restaurant menu is offering strawberries at Christmas then they are out of season and likely to be imported and picked unripe. Equally chips on the menu in spring is a sure sign of a frozen variety or a potato that has been a long time in storage and the starch has turned to sugar."
CHOOSE YOUR TIMESLOT WISELY
There are advantages to booking both early and peak-time slots, though Chandos tells Stylist he prefers a busy dining room: "The best time to eat in any restaurant is when it is full and the customers are having a good time. This enthusiasm from the dining room translates into the kitchen. Chefs love it when they are busy.
"Early evening dining is one way of guaranteeing that the chefs give each dish their full attention, but this is a trade-off. A busy atmosphere definitely lends an excitement to eating which an emptier, quieter restaurant cannot replace. Eating late carries the risk of declining energy and ingredients that have been finished. However, this is rarely the case in the higher standard restaurants where all dishes are given equal attention."
OR TRY DAYTIME DINING
Food critic Jay Rayner, writing for the Observer, revealed a tip for high-end dining at a more affordable price: going for lunch instead. A Michelin-starred experience for a fraction of the usual cost.
He said of Michel Roux Jr's London restaurant Le Gavroche, "At night [a meal] can swiftly sprint past the £100-a-head mark... But at lunchtime it harbours a secret: the all-inclusive 'business lunch menu'. This isn't merely three courses... but canapes, petits fours and half a bottle of both mineral water and wine.
"The price: £54 a head. Throw in a tip and it's £120 for two all in. No, not cheap, but extraordinary value for what you get, which really is the full Gavroche experience."
There are tonnes of award-winning restaurants doing a similar thing, such as three-star Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester's £60 Lunch Hour (three courses, wine, water and a hot drink) and one-star L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon offering lunch and pre-theatre menus (two, three and four-course options) starting at just £31.
DON'T BE ASHAMED OF YOUR BUDGET
It's easy to feel intimidated when the sommelier approaches and order without checking the price, but remember they are there to help you have the best experience possible. There's no point acting like money's no object only to spend the meal worrying about the bill. No high-end restaurant worth its salt will make you feel embarrassed for stating how much you're prepared to spend on wine. As Chandos says: "Michel Roux OBE explained to me that the fastest way to lose customers is to sell expensive bottles of wine to people who don’t want them."
Christopher Bothwell, Head Sommelier at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, tells Stylist that the best way to end up with a wine you like within your budget is to tell him exactly what you want.
"When ordering wine always give the maximum information to the sommelier: what you feel like, what you like and why," he explains. "Be open and honest with your wine preferences and with your budget - don’t be frightened to have an opinion. The sommelier will always try and exceed your expectations if he has all the information he needs to do so."
You may not be a wine expert, but you know what you like, right?
ALWAYS BUY BY THE BOTTLE
This particular advice came up in our research again and again – given alcohol is always priced for profit in a dining establishment, drinking wine by the glass carries a hefty mark-up and just isn't worth it if more than one of you is drinking wine.
“If you’re out with at least one other person, consider buying a bottle—the cost per glass is much lower,” Madeline Puckette, a Seattle-based sommelier told LearnVest - pointing out that if you don’t finish the bottle, you should be allowed to take it away with you.
The article also points out that in some restaurants, it's worth asking the sommelier if they have a “pocket list” or “end of bin list.” According to Regina Arendt, general manager at Smith & Wollensky in Chicago, “it means that the restaurant has only one or two bottles left, so they sell it at a discount to move the product.”
CHECK OUT THE TOILETS
Timeless advice from Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 book Kitchen Confidential: "I won't eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms. This isn't a hard call. They let you see the bathrooms. If the restaurant can't be bothered to replace the puck in the urinal or keep the toilets and floors clean, then just imagine what their refrigeration and work spaces look like."
NEVER ORDER WELL-DONE STEAK
Most chefs will shudder at the idea of an expensive cut of meat being cooked through until there's no trace of pink, but according to Anthony, some go a little further than being mildly upset that a customer has requested their steak well done.
"'Saving for well-done' is a time-honoured tradition dating back to cuisine's earliest days," he writes. "So what happens when the chef finds a tough, slightly skanky end-cut of sirloin that's been pushed repeatedly to the back of the pile? He can 'save for well-done': serve it to some rube who prefers his meat or fish incinerated into a flavourless, leathery hunk of carbon, who won't be able to tell if what he's eating is food or flotsam."
DON'T DINE OUT ON VALENTINE'S
Website seriouseats.com consulted a number of industry insiders to get the lowdown on restaurant experiences on V Day, and the results are in: don't do it. The servers are rushed, the dishes are likely new and a set menu will see you spending more money on more courses than you might usually have chosen.
A Seattle chef, who asked to remain anonymous, revealed: "Valentine's day is a day where customers are willing to spend money recklessly...You don't want to disappoint or short-change diners, especially in the age of Yelp, but you want to take advantage of their temporary looseness with money in a way that makes an outsize profit."
Thekitchn.com agrees, as an experienced maître d' explains you'll be rushed through dinner as the restaurant is probably fully booked for both sittings, and the staff will be wishing they were off celebrating themselves. Time to brush up on those home-cooking skills.
BE WARY OF PRICING TRICKS
It's becoming more known now that sometimes restaurants will make us of an 'anchor item' - something priced outrageously to make the dishes next to it seem reasonable in comparison, so pay attention.
Another strategy getting more popular is to drop the pound sign from the price. Just seeing '12' in theory gives us the same information as seeing '£12' and thus, shouldn't make a difference, but studies have shown people spend more when the currency symbol is absent.
William Poundstone, author of Priceless: The Myth Of Fair Value, says it's because we spend a fraction less time thinking about the money. "The more space you devote to something on a menu, the more people pay attention to it. So if you have a pound sign and the number of pence, it takes up more space on the page — and more space in your mental attention."
THE EARLY BIRD AND ALL THAT
You'd love to try out that new place everyone's raving about, but it seems to be booked up for months. Industry expert Chandos says there are ways of getting round the wait list. "My golden rule is to turn up in person early," he tells Stylist. "Many restaurants keep some tables available and if you are early and can be in and out quickly, then you can often get a table on the spur of the moment. The current hot ticket in London is Kitty Fisher’s in Shepherd’s Market. The booking line is only open for four hours. The best way to get a table, they say, is to turn up early and take your chance. Good advice."
And what about the glut of non-bookable restaurants, especially in London? Is there any way of jumping the two-hour queue - like getting queue stand-ins to reserve your place? "The best way to get the most out of a restaurant experience is to be honest," says Chandos. "This has always been my trump card. Tell the manager what you want and that you are happy for him or her to do what they can. People who work in restaurants want to please and be helpful. What they don’t like is duplicity."
KNOW YOUR AFTERNOON TEA
Afternoon tea deals are in abundance these days, but the quality can vary. If you're splashing out, the below can help you both sound like you know what you're doing, and ensure you're not paying through the nose for a bog-standard cuppa.
Tea sommelier Jameel Lalani, whose company Lalani & Co designs the tea lists at luxury hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants, has some expert advice for Stylist.
"Avoid ordering the ‘English Breakfast’. There isn't an official rule of what should be in an English breakfast, so you could get a blend of any black tea. If you like full-bodied black teas order a pure second flush (season) Assam," he explains.
“Another tip is to always check the tea’s year of picking. Most hotels and restaurants won’t list the year, but for instance, a first flush Darjeeling should be drunk young – in the first year." So ask away about the origin of your tea and the best time to drink it, and hopefully you won't end up paying £35 for a vintage Tetleys.
DON'T ORDER THE SPECIAL
It usually sounds good, doesn't it? A one-off, limited edition dish rattled off by your waiter or waitress, so brief it's not on the menu and it's just been so popular. However, most restaurant insiders seem to think that specials are simply a way of getting rid of excess stock (fair enough as long as it tastes good) or about-to-go-off ingredients (not quite so appealing). It’s also thought to be an extremely profitable dish that diners are more likely to order because their waiter or waitress personally recommends it, despite knowing it's their job to get you to buy expensive food.
Of course, this won’t be the case in restaurants that change their menu regularly anyway or rely largely on foraged ingredients, so it’s your call.
Words: Amy Swales
* Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester invites guests to explore wine with a series of 'Back to Basics' classes hosted by acclaimed sommeliers Vincent Pastorello and Christopher Bothwell. For more information, call 020-7629-8866
* Chandos Elletson is creator and editor of The Chef’s Directory - the new guide to being a successful chef